The Economics of Indie Comics

This is a post I debated putting up, however after thinking about it I think this information needs to be out there for the benefit of:

  • Aspiring and existing indie comic artists,
  • Consumers, fans and con-goers,
  • Convention organisers and staff.

This post will talk, very frankly, about the costs of creating and selling independent comic books in the UK.  Prices will be in GBP and based upon my personal experiences, as well as conversations I’ve had with other creators.  In the best interests of all involved there will be absolute anonymity.  Additionally, this posts aims to be positive, proactive and, where it does highlight problems, suggest solutions.  Let’s go!

How much does it cost to sell at a convention?

The cost of appearing at a convention varies wildly from show to show.  There are also multiple costs involved.  Below, I’ve broken down the common, recurring, costs that apply to pretty much every convention (yes, some conventions have costs unique to them) as well as the most and least I have ever personally spent on that item.  After talking about the costs, I’ll talk about how I decide whether those costs are reasonable.

Table

Most conventions supply a 6ft by 2ft table, though you need to bring your own tablecloth.  You’ll be charged for table hire and use of the space around your table.  The least I’ve ever paid was £0, yes I’ve had a ‘free’ table before although it was on a condition that I run 2 panels over the course of the convention lasting at least 1 hour each and appear on a 3rd panel which was basically a Q&A with other artists.  The most I’ve ever paid was £120.

There isn’t much you can do to minimise this cost.  The price is set by the show organisers and, if you think it’s too high, the only thing you can do is vote with your wallet and not attend that show.

Accomodation

This can be a doozy!  Essentially, you need somewhere to sleep, also on that point, if you’re selling at a convention make sure you get plenty of sleep!  Again, the least I’ve ever paid was £0.  This has either been because the convention was only on for a single day and/or local, eliminating the need for a hotel, or due to having friends or family who live near the convention and were kind enough to offer me their couch/spare room.

Calculating the most I’ve spent on this is tricky because there are different figures I could give you.  I could give you a per night figure – in which case we’re at £90 a night, or a per convention figure, which would be £300.  Those figures come from different conventions because some shows are longer than others, meaning more nights in the hotel.  To give you an example, MCM’s London shows are 3 days along – being spread across a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  Due to Friday being a full trading day, they open to exhibitors for set up on Thursdays.  If you’re travelling from far away, you’ll likely be too tired to travel back straight after the show on Sunday evening, so you might recharge at the hotel and make the journey on Monday morning.  That’s 4 nights’ accommodation and can quickly add up!

There are a few things you can do to bring this cost down.  There’s the aforementioned staying with friends or relatives if you have that option.  Alternatively, you could try a website like AirBNB where people offer up their spare rooms for short stays.  Some people have concerns about staying with a stranger they contacted through the Internet and I can understand why some might worry about it so exercise caution.  It’s a sad truth that there are some weirdos, creeps and bad guys out there.

There’s the option of a hostel.  They’re very cheap, however you’re likely to be sharing a room with several people you don’t know unless you make a group booking with other artists.  Sharing with strangers is always a risk, besides the obvious concerns of theft and violence you also don’t know what their personality is like.  Are they loud party goers?  Quiet introverts?  Will they come in drunkenly singing at 2am when you just want to sleep?  You don’t know.

Finally, a really sensible option is to stay further away from the event.  Most hotels know when events are happening, especially if the hotel is hosting the convention (Kitacon is usually at the Hilton Birimingham Metropole NEC for example) and most increase their prices accordingly.  Check the price of a hotel the weekend before and after a convention, then check the weekend the convention is on and you’ll usually find the convention weekend is double or triple the cost of the surrounding weekends.  You can counter this by staying at a hotel slightly further out that doesn’t think they’ll see any extra business from the event or doesn’t know the event is taking place.  When there’s a London show, I usually find that I halve the accommodation costs by staying just one or two Underground stops away from the convention.

There are a couple of downsides to my suggestions.  The hotels by the venue are usually where you’ll find the after party and most of your friends.  Staying a little further out means a little bit of travelling each morning and evening and, depending on where the convention is, the cost and inconvenience of the travel might outweigh the benefit of having a cheaper room.

Travel

I’ll be blunt, travel is an absolute pain for me.  For various reasons beyond my control it is highly inadvisable that I ever drive (though surprisingly and scarily there’s nothing legally preventing me from trying).  This puts me at the mercy of public transport.

The least I’ve ever spent on travel was £0.  I had a friend going to the same convention, it was a long drive for them and I lived much closer to the show than they did.  They crashed on my couch for a couple of nights and, in return, I hopped in their car to get to and from the convention.  It’s beautiful when it works but the opportunity is very rarely there.

Outside of that, I’ve used buses, trains, taxis and my own two feet to get myself to and from shows.  More often than not it’s required a combination of several of those to get to and from a single show.  The most I’ve ever spent on travel has been £90.  Let’s look at some tips!

Coaches can be really handy.  They go most places for a quarter of the cost of a train.  You’re guaranteed a seat (a comfy one at that), you get allocated luggage space and most of them have plug sockets so your phone/3DS/PlayStation Vita doesn’t run out of battery.  The downside is that they stop at every single town and village along the way and have a restricted top speed.  Travelling to Leeds on a coach took me 8 hours, the same length of time it once took for me to fly from London to Charlotte, USA, when visiting a friend a few years ago!

On the back of coaches, we have buses.  These are usually only used for very short journeys, such as a convention in the next town over, or for getting from the train/coach station to the convention’s venue and then from the venue to the hotel.  Only tip I can give is that most operators now offer a day ticket that allows you to hop on and off as many of their buses as you want all day and these tickets are usually cheaper than a normal one use return ticket.  Just bear in mind that you’re not guaranteed a seat and everyone on that bus will hate you for bringing luggage on board.

Trains have a terrible reputation in the UK.  They’re rarely on time, they’re disgustingly expensive, and often overcrowded.  Also, there are no guarantees you’ll have anywhere to store your luggage.  One advantage they do have is their sheer speed.  Taking a train is often faster than driving and you don’t have to worry about parking.  The major headache is that one issue on one train can bring an entire network down.  One patch of flooding, one fatality on the line, one technical issue with overhead wiring or signals and not only can one train not move, neither can the one behind it, nor the one behind that.  It makes trains almost fatally unreliable for me, a person who’s rather strict about punctuality and timeliness.

Finally, we have taxis.  Guaranteed seat, guaranteed luggage space, no sharing with strangers and they run at a decent speed!  It’s a shame they’re far too expensive to be viable.  The only times I’ve used a taxi is when I’ve had no other choice.  If I were a richer man and made a good amount of money at conventions then the convenience of them might outweigh the cost.  Always book in advance to get a set price agreed, that way if you get stuck in traffic there isn’t a meter ticking upwards while you’re not moving.

I have no idea how any of those costs compare to driving.  Cars have an initial purchase price, annual MOTs, insurance, services, breakdown cover, petrol, spare parts and labour any time something goes wrong, and you have to find somewhere to park it, usually at a cost, when you get to your destination.  On the plus side, you don’t have to restrict how much luggage stock and display items you take with you.  If it can fit in the car, it’s fair game, it’s not like you’ll be carrying it all in one go up stairs, through public areas etc. as you would on public transport.

Food

An often overlooked but none-the-less important cost.  Unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with friends you probably won’t have anything to cook with while you’re away.  Yeah, there’s a kettle but I’ve found out the hard way that you can’t do a convention on instant noodles alone!  Even then, there’s the cost in going and buying those noodles!

The least I’ve ever spent is again, £0.  It was a one day convention, it was local, I had breakfast at home and once I got to the show I was having so much fun that the show was over before I knew it.  I was made to regret not eating lunch as I felt terrible immediately after the show.  When I got home I tried to compensate by having an extra large portion of dinner which only led to indigestion.

The most I’ve ever spent was £60.  I was unfamiliar with the area, my phone was too low on battery to risk using Google Maps and it was Winter so the sun was only in the sky for a few hours each day.  Unfamiliar places are scary in the dark!  Also, fellow artists invited me to eat out with them and I’d done well on sales and felt like I deserved a treat.

My main tip for this one is to never buy your food at the convention’s venue.  It’s always going to be expensive, there’s usually a long queue, and with how many people need to be served quantity is often prioritised over quality by the vendors.  Usually, there’ll be a small supermarket or convenience store near the venue offering your standard £3 meal deal of a sandwich, snack and drink.  Grab one of these before the show!  I usually do a mini shop the day before a show and buy multi-packs of cereal bars, water bottles, biscuits etc. so that I have a constant supply of food and drink at the show for a reasonable price and don’t have to leave my table (time away from your table to grab food is time you’re not spending selling your goods).

Totals

Okay, let’s take all of that information and put it into a handy table so that we know both extremes and can work out an average price.

DescriptionLowestHighestAverage
Totals£0.00£570.00£285.00
Table£0.00£120.00£60.00
Accommodation£0.00£300.00£150.00
Travel£0.00£90.00£45.00
Food£0.00£60.00£30.00

Bearing in mind that all of the £0.00 entries have special conditions attached to them, it should be pretty clear that the majority of conventions aren’t cheap!  You need to carefully consider the cost of a convention before deciding to attend.  Don’t think that just because you’ve been offered a table, or you know the organisers, or your friends are going, that you have to go.

Deciding whether a convention is reasonably priced

It’s always tough to tell whether you can realistically make your money back from a convention.  You’ll always have surprises in both directions.  I’ve been to conventions where my costs were only £25, it was a one day event contained in a single room and there were only 250 attendees and somehow managed to make £140.  I’ve also been to conventions with a fantastic reputation, that have been running for years, are multiple days long and have attendance in the tens of thousands yet I’ve made a loss of around £300.  In doing those things I’ve managed to at least define a few rules for myself which I hope will help you too.

Demographic

Arguably the most important factor.  You need to know who your books appeal to and whether those people will be at the show.  Joe Cape seems to go down well with 25 to 35 year old males who are fond of mainstream superhero books but enjoy mocking the tropes and clichés of the genre.  Typically, these guys have a cynical sense of humour forged from at least some experience in customer service.

Bearing that in mind, I recently decided not to go to a local convention that seems to be heavily focused on sci-fi and films.  They’ve also been heavily advertising photographs, signings and Q&As with the stars of those TV shows and movies.  In my experience, the kind of crowd that brings in isn’t the same crowd that buy my books.

Likewise, I recently did a show with a surprising number of young children.  It took me by surprise.  Joe Cape is by no means a mature book but I don’t expect a child to understand a joke about direct debits either.  In the end I made a loss at that show, as did many other indie creators, while the toy and merchandise stalls made out like bandits.

On the other side of the coin, I did a show based on a single fandom which was a huge risk and a complete unknown for me.  What I discovered was that having a love for the fandom meant that I had something in common with every attendee and was able to strike up conversation with almost anyone there.  That really helped fuel my sales and it didn’t matter that what I had to offer was unrelated to the fandom itself.

Figure out who you’re writing for, find out which shows appeal to those people and pitch directly to them.

Attendance

I have a very simple but very effective formula for figuring out whether I’m likely to make my convention costs back at larger shows.  I look at the show’s costs, then I look at the cost of my comic (£4).  I figure out how many people I’d have to sell a comic to in order to make my costs back and then compare that to their estimated attendance to know “I have to sell to 1 in every X people to make this work”.

Let’s say a show’s going to cost me £300 altogether.  I’d have to sell 75 comics.  Let’s say that show has an attendance of 75,000 because I’m lazy and I want the maths to be easy in this example.  I have to sell a comic to 1 in every 1,000 attendees.  That would be a show I’d definitely want to attend.

I don’t sell 75 comics per show, I wish I did, but with 3 issues of Joe Cape out I can sell 3 comics to a single person.  I also have other products for sale, some of which bring in more than a comic does.  In addition, I offer on the day commissions which, depending on what someone’s asking for, can be anything from £5 to £60.  I don’t need to make 75 individual sales but hearing “1 in every 1,000 attendees” is a great way to reassure myself and give me confidence.

For smaller shows, I often find the formula doesn’t work.  A £25 convention only requires me to sell 7 comics.  Even if the attendance is only 200 people it’s entirely possible that only 1 or 2 sales will cover my costs if the buyers get multiple items.  It’s so low cost, low risk that it seems silly not to take a chance on it.  I also find that a smaller show means you have fewer people to compete with, yet attendees still bring roughly the same amount of spending money and so are more likely to yell “I’ll have one of everything!”  It is very much a judgement call.

Atmosphere

This one is so hard to judge but it is important.  There are certain shows I adore as an attendee but wouldn’t ever sell at because money doesn’t change hands there.  Conventions where people just want to hang out, go to some panels, show off their cosplay and party with their friends exist.  The cash they bring with them is for alcohol, not a new comic, print, figure, DVD, etc.

Other shows are purely about frenzied spending.  They’re giant sprawling dealers rooms with very little in the way of events or panels.  They usually schedule themselves during school holidays or immediately after student loans and bursaries enter the bank accounts of millions of 18 to 21 year old students across the country.  It feels like borderline exploitation on the convention organisers part but I’ll admit that frenzied spending is great for sellers.  The only real downside is that those kind of customers are buying a lot of things on impulse and it’s harder to get long term fans who come back for consecutive issues at those kind of shows.

The vast majority of shows try to fall in the middle but will lean one way or the other.  Figure out which way they lean before signing up.  Talk to friends, ask them if they went last year.  Ask them what they bought, if anything.  Do your research, in short.

The danger of assuming you’ve broken even when you haven’t

So far, this article has said “if your convention costs £400 and your comic sells for £4, you need to sell 100 comics” and, honestly, that’s a lie.  In truth, I should say you need to sell 200 comics.

Wait, what?

There’s a cost we’ve yet to look at, the cost of actually producing your comic.  I’ve created 4 comics so far, 1 issue of Arcadia and 3 issues of Joe Cape.  The cheapest print run was around £1.60 per issue and the most expensive was exactly £2.00 per issue.  I print in small quantities with a local UK printer and on high quality paper.  That’s a very high cost for a commercial item.

Realistically, I should charge more than £4 per issue, but, and this is where other indie creators will yell at me, regardless of what it costs to print, an item is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.  Marvel and DC pump out their books in ridiculously high quantities on cheap paper at a low cost and sell them for between £2.20 and £4.50.  That’s conditioned people to expect single issue comics to fall within that price range.

Next, consider what they’re buying.  Spider-Man and Batman are huge properties.  They have decades of history, multiple TV shows, loads of movies and yet December 2015’s Batman issue 47 only sold 127,201 copies while Amazing Spider-Man issue 4 sold 82,066 copies.  (Figures taken from Comichron.)  Those figures might sound impressive, but when you consider that The Dark Knight Rises, the most recent Batman movie, took a whopping $1,084,439,099 at the worldwide box office and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the most recent Spider-Man movie, took £708,996,336 (figures taken from The Numbers) you suddenly realise that while everyone loves these characters, hardly anyone is buying their comics.

Let’s look back to Joe Cape.  I don’t have a TV series, or a movie.  No one has heard of my book.  There is no brand recognition, no pre-conceived notion of quality.  As a creator, I’m also relatively obscure.  I’ve not worked for Image, Vertigo, Boom, Marvel or DC.  I don’t have a name for myself.  I’m asking someone to take a chance on what is an unknown quantity to them and I’m doing so at what they consider to be the top end of the price range for a single issue comic.  I cannot reasonably push that £4 price point any higher.

What I can do is decrease the paper quality, print in higher quantities and use a different printer.  Those are all viable solutions for increasing my margin, however if I do that I then lose one of my unique selling points (high quality paper), I’d need to spend money I don’t have on a larger print run that I might not then be able to sell and I’d lose the personable and excellent level of customer service I receive from my current printer.

What I currently do is sell prints, which have a significantly larger margin than comics, and hand drawn commissions, which also have a much higher margin.  I also sell digital copies of Joe Cape via Comixology – copies which have no upfront production costs.  Combined, these have the task of making sure I don’t bankrupt myself.

What you can take away from this.

This is all well and good but what does it mean for you?

Consumers

Hopefully this helps you realise that buying something from an independent creator makes a huge difference to them and they’re extremely grateful on a personal level, something you’ll never get from Marvel or DC.  Additionally, indie comics contain some of the most varied and interesting stories out there today!

Convention Organisers

The indie talent that come to your shows are a fantastic unique selling point.  We offer products that are very exclusive, usually produced in extremely limited runs and are crafted by people who could be a future big name in comics.  Make it part of your marketing campaign, shine a spotlight on it and say “here is something only Comic Con can offer you!”

Also, I’ve found my sales have been better when we’re all grouped together as people enter our section, catch on pretty quickly and have an “oh wow” reaction.  When we’re scattered people are more likely to be confused about who we are and why we’re there.  Let’s combat that and shout, loudly and proudly, who we are and why we’re there!

Some of you already do a fantastic job of this, and I think you’ve seen the benefits first hand.  Please, tell fellow organisers about the positive responses you’ve had to nurturing that community and let’s see if we can make what’s currently considered as doing it well become the standard.

Indie Creators

Keep on doing what you’re doing.  I know it’s hard, and expensive, and sometimes you question your sanity for doing it, but the friends you’ll make, the experiences you’ll have and that sensation you get when someone tells you your comic made them smile are absolutely worth it.

TLDR

I’ve talked on and on for far longer than I intended to.  Short version, indie comics is a difficult gig.  Do keep your day job but don’t ever give up on the dream and keep making new material and attending conventions.  If you want to drop me a line, I’m on FacebookTwitter and I recently started using one of those Tumblr things (though I have no idea how to use it)!